A British foreign policy? Forget it

Richard Gott listens for what the parties have to say on international affairs - and finds silence

Related Topics
In the small print of the election campaign few people seem to have noticed that the major parties advocate the abolition of the Foreign Office. That, at least, is the conclusion one must draw from the almost total absence at the hustings of any discussion about foreign affairs. Politicians obviously think it would be just as well if the Foreign Office were not there, and doubtless a lot of money could be saved by getting rid of it.

The Conservative position is clear. Mrs Thatcher never liked or trusted the institution, and indeed tried to set up one of her own. The detailed investigations contained in the Scott Report did little to improve its reputation - except for duplicity, opacity, and being economical with the truth.

Labour, never one to step out of line, presumably shares this view, with the added bonus that if there was no Foreign Office there would be no job for Robin Cook. With no Cold War, no obvious foreign enemy, and an apathetic electorate, why bother to have a Foreign Office at all? Why not take a leaf out of the book of the former Soviet foreign minister, Leon Trotsky, who said he would make a few declarations and then shut up shop.

Of course, for all we know, both parties may plan to maintain a residual foreign service, perhaps as a department within the Home Office. This could serve to cope with British subjects caught up in the nets of foreign justice - football hooligans, lager louts, and drug carriers. But from the absence of any evidence to the contrary, it now looks as though the whole panoply of embassies and ambassadors is likely to be junked, whichever party wins the election. In the realm of foreign affairs, only the future of the Royal Yacht remains a contentious party-political issue

As every history student is almost certainly well aware, no election has been fought on a foreign policy issue since 1857. In a forgotten and unnecessary election, Lord Palmerston roundly defeated the radical enthusiasts of the Manchester School, Richard Cobden and John Bright. They had foolishly argued that it would be an error to have another war with China. There have never been any British votes in standing up for Johnny Foreigner. That is the accepted wisdom, and so things have remained ever since. In the current campaign, there is of course an endless diet of mealy-mouthed words about Europe, which would need the army of unemployed kremlinologists to decipher. But about the great outside world beyond, the politicians and their spin doctors are keeping mum.

Look at the current headlines. Do we support President Mobutu or Laurent Kabila? Silence. Where do we stand on the use of British mercenaries in Papua New Guinea? Deathly hush. Do we go along with Islamic democracy in Turkey, or would we prefer a secular military coup? Search me, guv. Would we like to see more Israeli settlements on the West Bank, or fewer? No idea. Do we want to terrify the Russians by extending the frontiers of Nato further to the east? Too complicated. Will we still need to be nice to the Chinese when we have finally cut loose the albatross of Hong Kong? Never given it a thought. Should we be friends or enemies with our nearest neighbour, the Republic of Ireland, when the peace process is finally admitted to have ground to a halt? Don't know. And when attention focuses on Albania, might we not discuss whether we are in favour of the Tosks or the Ghegs? And answer came there none.

During the entire campaign we shall hear nothing of these issues. Yet they will not go away just because no one is looking. History also tells us that a newly elected prime minister, once in government, soon finds much of his or her time caught up in the minutiae of foreign affairs - for better or sometimes for worse. Neville Chamberlain was a splendid minister of health, yet he is remembered for his inexperience in the world of foreign policy. His aide de camp, Sir Horace Wilson, was a brilliant labour negotiator, but rather less skilled when it came to European diplomacy.

Mrs Thatcher was also caught up in subjects that were not within her existing sphere of expertise. With her heart set on mundane local business like dismantling the power of the unions or reorganising education, she found herself strutting on the world stage almost by accident - stiffening Western resistance in the Gulf, frightening the Russians, and fighting a small war in the Falklands.

So it will be if Tony Blair were to become prime minister. However much he has pledged to pay attention to things at home, he will, within weeks of taking office, be seized of the importance of the outside world. He will be seen jetting off to great international gatherings in Amsterdam and Madrid, and hosting important meetings with foreign leaders at home. These will not be cosy parochial encounters discussing hygiene in the beef industry or the price of Brussels sprouts, they will be serious negotiations about foreign affairs, attempting to put what was once proudly thought of as "an independent foreign policy" into a larger international pool, arguing with people who are supposed to be friends and allies about the attitude of Europe and Nato to the problems of the world beyond.

That is the dimension that is missing from all election debate. What, in the formation of Europe's foreign policy, will be the arguments of Britain? Missing too is any discussion about the future of tried and tested warhorses like the United Nations and the Commonwealth, institutions that were largely ignored and distrusted in the Conservative era. Has our interest withered forever?

Maybe, although no one dares to talk about such things, there should still be an argument about the future of the Foreign Office itself. What exactly are all those toffee-nosed diplomats really there for? And just how good are they at what they perceive to be their job? To a disinterested observer it might seem that the Foreign Office now only exists to disguise and cover up the inexperience of the political class when it comes to handling the problems of the outside world. With the assumed and in effect enforced disinterest of the electorate, it has become natural for politicians to turn to the advice and the alleged expertise of people who still perceive themselves as heirs to an imperial and mandarin tradition. Maybe that compounds the problem. That such questions should be raised during an election campaign is obviously too much to ask.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Support Administrator - Part Time

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the South West'...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - OTE £40,000

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An expanding business based in ...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales - Business Broker - Scotland

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As an award winning and leading...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales - Business Broker - North East Region

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As an award winning and leading...

Day In a Page

Read Next

The Top Ten: Words In Christmas Carols That Ought To Be Revived

John Rentoul
Polish minister Rafal Trazaskowski (second from right)  

Poland is open to dialogue but EU benefits restrictions are illegal and unfair

Rafal Trzaskowski
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas